Graphic look at the adventure-loving father of zombies
William Seabrook, an alcoholic with a penchant for honest writing, had a dark side
Hamilton cartoonist Joe Ollmann first discovered William Seabrook’s biography in a zombie anthology 11 years ago, and was instantly taken. Seabrook — who is credited with introducing the word “zombie” into contemporary culture with his 1929 bestselling book The Magic Island — was a he-man adventurer who travelled with the Bedouin and studied voodoo practices in Haiti. He also hung out with various intellectuals and artists of the era, including Gertrude Stein, Man Ray and Aldous Huxley. But the more Ollmann dug into the details of Seabrook’s life, the more salacious the details got. He discovered an unrepentant alcoholic with an equally unrepentant and sadistic penchant for bondage. Oh, and he once tried cannibalism. “It’s not the aberrations that interest me so much as it is his honesty in writing about them,” Ollmann says. “In a very repressed time during the ’30s and ’40s, this guy’s writing openly about bondage and cannibalism for major publishers and places like Ladies’ Home Journal. People hide their weirdness and he never did.”
For five years, Ollmann read everything about and by Seabrook he could get his hands on, including his first book, Adventures in Arabia, about his time living in the Middle East, and Asylum, which chronicles Seabrook’s voluntary stay in a mental hospital for alcoholism.
“He had this crazy fascinating life but no one knows about him,” says Ollmann, who then spent another five years dedicated to researching the writer’s life for his new graphic novel, The Abominable Mr. Seabrook.
While gathering background information, Ollmann travelled to the University The Abominable Mr. Seabrook of Oregon, which houses the archives of Seabrook’s second wife, the novelist Marjorie Worthington. In her writings and letters, Ollmann discovered a harsher side of the man.
“He tells his stories very blithely and puts it in these very humourous terms,” Ollmann says. “Her perspective is much darker. I didn’t want to portray him as all bad, but there is a lot of bad to be said. It is hard to live with a person who is an alcoholic. He never showed it but other people did, so it was only fair for me to show it, too.”
Seabrook died in 1945 from taking an overdose of sleeping pills — by then his work was basically forgotten. The only writing he did later in life was more in the writer-for-hire vein.
One of the inadvertent effects of working on The Abominable Mr. Seabrook was that Ollmann himself quit drinking. While labouring away in his home studio at night, Ollmann would keep a bottle of whisky or cognac on hand for sipping, and although he stopped mostly for health purposes and not directly because of Seabrook: “I was constantly writing and drawing him drinking. There are so many pictures of him drinking because it was so much part of his story,” he says. “I got sick of drawing and showing someone ruining their life with booze.”
Ollmann speculates that Seabrook’s downfall was in part due to his alcoholism, but also because, later in life, he gave up his adventuring ways, settling down in the Hudson Valley to present tea-time talks to social groups. His is a cautionary tale indeed, but Ollmann — who recently illustrated the covers and wrote introductions for reissues of The Magic Island and Asylum — really wants people to discover the man’s writing.
“His first books are wonderful, adventure-travel books,” Ollmann says. “He wrote about trashy subjects but he wrote about them smarter than you would have expected.” Sue Carter is the editor of Quill and Quire.
by Joe Ollmann, Drawn & Quarterly, 316 pages, $26.95.